Pass the Rogaine, please: Research published in the Journal of Hospital Infections suggests that beards may defend against infections, which might be reason enough for me to grow out my facial hair this cold season. (I usually prefer to remain at least relatively clean-shaven, but I absolutely HATE being sick.)
To come to this conclusion, researchers swabbed the faces of more than 400 male hospital staff members and found that those with beardless cheeks were more than three times as likely to be harboring methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA), a particularly contagious infection that has become resistant to many of our currently available antibiotics.
The researchers suggest that their findings might be the result of micro-abrasions caused by shaving, “which may support bacterial colonization and proliferation.” But a different analysis of beards performed by microbiologist Adam Roberts and the BBC came to another (admittedly more exciting) conclusion: Beards contain at least one microbe, which is part of a species called staphylococcus epidermidis, that actively slaughters infectious bacteria, similar to antibiotics. Roberts even tested this aggressive microbe against a drug-resistant form of E. coli that causes urinary tract infections, and the microbe proceeded to go on an all-out killing spree.
It’s worth noting, however, that this bacteria-busting microbe isn’t necessarily unique to beards, as Philip Tierno, clinical professor in the department of pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained to Mic. “People touch their faces often — they touch their nose, they rub their eyes, they’re bringing on a variety of things. Kissing people, even on the cheek, brings organisms. Over time, you have opportunities to deposit numerous types of organisms — some of which stay, some of which die.”
In other words, whether or not beards really fight against sickness remains largely uncertain, although the initial research does seem to prove that beards somehow prevent the spread of bacteria.
Even still, primary care physician Marc Leavey doesn’t recommend growing a beard for this purpose. “The references that support any kind of antibacterial aspect of a beard don’t advise growing one for that reason,” he emphasizes. “Since person-to-person contact is a major vector in the transmission of many diseases, it may be that having facial hair inhibits such person-to-person contact, and thus lessens the opportunity to become infected.”
As an additional benefit, experts have also argued that beards may have a similar suppressing effect on allergies. “It’s two-fold in terms of how beards can protect you from allergies,” Abib Agbetoba, director of the Texas Allergy and Sinus Center, told the Houston Chronicle. “The first is obvious. The beard acts as a barrier between the outdoor allergens and even outdoor allergens. The beard can trap or filter those allergens before getting into the nose and mouth.”
Agbetoba went on to explain that beards might also gradually expose you to small amounts of allergens, which might help you become immune to their effects. “With the beard, some of the allergens will become trapped in the moustache or beard itself, exposing the body to the allergens over a longer period of time. You are basically desensitizing yourself to the allergen over time.”
Leavey, however, is skeptical about the effects of facial hair on allergies. “In terms of filtering out pollen, one would have to create a tight web of facial hair covering the mouth and nose to act as a filter, and I doubt very much if that’s practical,” he says.
Welp, at least growing a beard beats going to the doctor.